I have agreed to speak at a local event called “The Heart of Ajax” this coming Wednesday. The really cool part is I’ll be speaking with a bunch of youths from all over the town of Ajax who will then devise a plan to take back to their school that will do one of the following: Raise awareness, Teach other kids how to be an Ally, Raise funds for an organization or in some form bring about positive change and positive impact in the lives of others. I was asked to speak about mental health, the stigma surrounding mental health and how to be an ally to those not classified as neurotypical.
I have thought extensively on what I wanted to say. I have started a dozen speeches, and threw each one away. Then tonight as I watched my son gently lean in to kiss his sleeping cousin’s forehead I saw her wall decals. She adores Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (TMNT) and I knew right then what I was going to talk about.
I hate TMNT. I hate what they remind me of. When I was in Grade 5 there was a boy in my grade who loved TMNT. we’ll call him “Shawn”. He would talk about them every single recess, and lunch hour. It didn’t matter if other kids really paid attention our not, this boy would still talk about them. See he didn’t really catch social cues all that well. He wore clothes a bit different from the rest of the boys my age, instead of jeans he only wore sweat pants, and his shoes had Velcro instead of laces. He would go into a special room with a special teacher than none of us had seen before for allot of his day. He didn’t always brush his teeth, enough so that the other kids really noticed the build up on his teeth at times. He was never mean to anyone. He would smile and say hi to everyone every day. For quite awhile, the first few months at least he tried to play with the other kids at our school. Every recess, and every lunch hour he’d try to insinuate himself into our games and our conversations. Most often his addition our conversations was to change the subject to TMNT. There was a girl in my class who was not very nice to allot of kids. She was especially mean with this boy. She would laugh at him and make fun of him and purposely exclude him from games and interactions on the school playground.
I never said anything mean to him. I never really said anything at all to him. I never stood up for this boy. I never tried to be a friend to him. I stayed silent when he was being slighted or shunned or made fun of. 22 years later I still have a lump in my chest when I think of him. I still feel bad that I wasn’t strong enough to stand up for him. I didn’t know why he was different. I didn’t understand it. I didn’t understand him. Do I know what his official diagnosis was, no I don’t. In part because we didn’t talk about that stuff back then. We didn’t get presentations or custom made books in our classroom to explain why someone was a bit different, and that we should accept them as they are. We didn’t have Autism Awareness Day or many of the other Awareness Days we now have for mental health/neurological diagnosis’s. But those are just excuses I tell myself when I look at my two sons. Pat answers for why I wasn’t the type of person I now want other children to be towards my own Autistic boys. The truth is, acceptance is taught. Acceptance is learnt, through being open, through conversations and presentations and through real life moments with someone who only wants to talk about TMNT.
My goal is to help these kids see how to be better than I was at their age. My goal is to help them develop their own school’s plan for increasing awareness of, and acceptance of persons with, various diagnosis’s. I want for the “Shawn’s” of the world to be invited to a birthday party when the entire class is given invites. I want their additions to conversations to be valued, even if they’re not agreed with I want them to feel like their peers are listening when they speak. I want for these kids I’ll speak with tomorrow to learn and in turn to teach others how to be an ally to those different from themselves. And maybe even to be open to the possibility of friendship with people with all different neural structures.
That is why I hate TMNT, because they remind me of when I failed at being an Ally. I failed at being open to someone different than myself. That is why I also love TMNT, because they remind me to be better, to be the type of person I would want in my own child’s life.
P.S “Shawn” I doubt you’ll ever read this, but if you do: I really am sorry.